Peripheral awareness, focused attention

Even after setting aside the mystical and supernatural angles, I’m always surprised at how often things come along at just the right time. I’ve moved the grocery shopping to Sunday morning, and roughly once a month that requires a 30-minute drive to Lexington for bulk supplies from Sam’s Club. I rarely listen to the radio in the car anymore, but I did this morning—when I do listen it’s always NPR—and was predictably irritated by the subjects on the drive into the city—subject, really, since media attention has not moved on yet from last week’s mass shootings.

But on the way back it was just past 11am, and programming had moved on to the really weird weekend stuff, at this point a program called Hidden Brain, and the hour was spent interviewing Iain McGilchrist. I was surprised by that—I’d first learned about his work through roundabout channels, namely some writers who take their mysticism seriously, and had a few shorter things by him on my to-be-read list—and even more surprised by the interview, which made it clear that McGilchrist’s big idea, a way of understanding the right-left brain distinction, was exactly the idea I had just started looking at closely as a way of reinvigorating my meditation practice.

I’ve practiced meditation for more than four years now, seriously, faithfully, and daily (with only a couple of short disruptions). In the beginning I was motivated mostly by excitement about what I was learning about mindfulness in my reading, as well as tangible results—not so much the pleasant stuff often used to sell meditation, but a new clarity in seeing and understanding, along with an untangling of the many different threads that compose my mind. But meditation is a practice and a path, and even though I was happy to continue on with it I felt after awhile that I wasn’t making the progress I should—not stuck, but somehow unfocused and unable to sort through the possibilities before me in a way that would lead me further up and further in.

And then a few weeks ago I came across The Mind Illuminated by Culadasa. It turns out to be exactly the thing I needed now. I’m reminded of when my son Chris first picked up the fiddle—he had a few lessons but mostly worked on his own, and became surprisingly good, enough to hold his own in a jam session. Then we met a friend who was a very good fiddler and also a long-time violin teacher. It seemed wise to schedule an initial lesson with this fellow, just to see wheat he thought he might be able to help Chris with. The fellow had him play several pieces, and after 30 minutes or so complimented Chris on having come so far on his own—but also very gently telling him that if he didn’t address some basic aspects of his technique he’d likely be stuck where he was with no hope of improvement. We scheduled the lessons, and the teacher tore down the existing structure and rebuilt it on a solid foundation with all elements up to code. It didn’t take forever, Chris is a hard enough worker that the job was done in a few months. Chris was a much better fiddler afterwards, and, most important, in a position to progress as far as his gifts and inclinations could take him.

Similarly with my practice before finding this book. I had the motivation, the basics, and an understanding of the possibilities—but any given time I would sit I wasn’t quite sure what aspect I should be working on at that point. And so what I actually did was heavily influenced by whatever mood I happened to be in, and I couldn’t really choose between the possibilities because they were all points along the path … somewhere.

This book seems to solve that problem for me. I don’t want to gush yet because it’s early days, it divides the path into ten stages and I’m only at the second one. But what has been critical for me is that the writer very clearly says by the end of such-and-such stage you should be able to do this—and I definitely didn’t qualify as having masted the key elements of stage two, even though I was well aware of them and had played with them along with all the others at various times.

The writer’s second stage is really the initial stage, because he very generously makes Stage One simply a matter of establishing a practice—really a preliminary to everything else, but surely the place where many folks give up, and so it’s good that he treats it thoroughly and encouragingly. But I had an established practice simply because that sort of behavior fits my temperment well, and I had been able to continue on diligently mostly on spec.

The writer opens the book with a model of consciousness I found very helpful. I won’t go into a lot of detail, but a key aspect is that he distinguishes between two kinds of perception, peripheral awareness and focused attention, says that both are in operation all the time, and that one job of meditation is to train your ability to direct and sustain your focused attention while fully maintaining your peripheral awareness. When you try to do this in meditation, the very first challenge you will meet is a tendency to forget what you are attending to, followed by a bout of mind wandering. This was definitely my initial experience—I would focus on something (breath), then suddenly find myself jolting into awareness out of daydreaming, realizing that it had happened but not knowing why or for how long. The trick for addressing this is to (a) actually cultivate gratitude for such an episode—after all, each time it happens is an opportunity to practice recognizing the tendency and its warning signs, and to give things another slightly more informed go. This part I actually understood already, and was fairly adept at recognizing daydreaming quickly and returning to the breath. Where Culadasa helped me was in pointing out that both the mind wandering and the forgetting needed to be conquered—mind wandering was a problem in itself, to be sure, but forgetting leaves the gap that mind-wandering fills, and if you can conquer forgetting then you will now be in a new place, able to sustain your attention on the object indefinitely.

So, two important new concepts for me already, the separation of forgetting and mind wandering, and the idea of peripheral awareness as a separate kind of perception that provides the background for directed attention. It’s that second idea that fits exactly with what McGilchrist claims, namely that the right brain is responsible for big-picture thinking and perception (peripheral awareness) while the left focuses on and analyzes the details (focused attention).

Dunno if that floats your boat, but it was enough to get me to buy and download McGilchrist’s book The Master and His Emissary as soon as I got home from the grocery stores.

2 thoughts on “Peripheral awareness, focused attention

  1. This is an interesting read. (My main spiritual practice is still davening, but I do it a lot less now since it’s difficult to leave dad alone during the day without scheduling backup.) My main goal is usually to be turning peripheral awareness off or at least down, and it’s really hard. I may check this out although I am Buddhism-skeptical. I appreciate the specific recommendation, though.

  2. Servetus,

    My main goal is usually to be turning peripheral awareness off or at least down, and it’s really hard.

    You may find this book especially helpful, then, since it takes the reader step by step through a process that aims at accomplishing that. The writer calls the ability to turn off peripheral awareness exclusive attention, which comes at the end of stage six. His description: “Your awareness no longer alternates back and forth from the breath to the distractions in the background. You can focus on the meditation object to the exclusion of everything else, and your scope of attention is stable. … You can now investigate any object with however broad or narrow a focus you choose.” I’m looking forward to that!

    I may check this out although I am Buddhism-skeptical. I appreciate the specific recommendation, though.

    The book is not at all Buddhist. (Neither am I.) Not only are metaphysics absent, It does not even address the dharma, i.e. the Buddha’s teachings on the nature of suffering and the path out. The focus is strictly on the practice of meditation and so it should be helpful to anyone from any tradition who buys the model of the mind it presents—and even that need not be taken on faith, it is very much a “taste and see” proposition.

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